The Pressures on College Girls Today

The author of The Doctor's Job and of other books related to medicine and psychiatry, and editor in chief of Psychosomatic Medicine, Dr. Carl Binger is presently serving as psychiatric consultant to the Harvard University Health Services. His article which follows forms part of a new volume, Emotional Problems of the Student, edited by Graham B. Blame, Jr., and Charles C. McArthur, to be published by AppletonCenturyCrofts this month.
More

This phenomenon, in greater or lesser degree, is sufficiently common to be called "normal." I have called it a depression; I do not insist on this as a clinical diagnosis. It has been described by some as an identity crisis, by others as adolescent turmoil. Behind it there are, of course, feelings of inadequacy, selfabsorption, worry, and accompanying anxiety. The significant facts are the lowered selfesteem and the diminution in zest, energy, and capacity to function in a creative way. The depression seems to be a kind of declaration of dependence, of helplessness, and a muted cry for help as well. And it occurs at some time and in varying intensity in practically every girl during her career at college.

Now, the student who experiences this need not be severely neurotic, nor are these manifestations necessarily evidence of any profound or abnormal emotional disturbance. They may simply represent in a freshman, for example the first response of a sensitive, naive adolescent to a new, frighteningly complicated, and sophisticated environment. After all, some of these girls are only sixteen or barely seventeen. They may have come from small towns, and they may be the first ones from their high schools to be accepted in one of the major women's colleges. All eyes are on them, and their parents are inordinately proud. The girls feel that they are in heaven at last. But they soon find the atmosphere rarefied and the air heady. They may never before have had to work hard, even in order to lead their classes. They are asked to write a paper not on the character of Silas Marner or on the most interesting experience they had during their summer vacations (in many high schools they are not given any written assignments), but, for example, on "The Relation of Leonardo's Writing to His Painting and to Fifteenthcentury Art in General." After chewing their pencils for a while and twirling a lock of hair, they finally brazen it out and go to the library. Even after they have mastered the indexing system, they are appalled by the number of cards under the heading "Leonardo," and they find nothing whatever on the assigned topic. Perhaps for the first time in their lives they are forced to read actively instead of passively and to do some quiet, hard thinking. This is not only a strange experience but almost akin to physical pain. And so there is a flight into solace: a little chat with the girl in the next room, who may have been to one of those progressive schools where this kind of assignment was familiar enough; or perhaps their neighbor attended a highpowered, exclusive boarding school and has gained so much poise and selfassurance that nothing appears to daunt her.

Or maybe our young freshman is the daughter of a trustee and her mother was the college heroine of her day not only Phi Beta Kappa, but the belle of the ball as well. This puts additional pressure on the student, who develops an egregious need to make good in spite of the awareness of her own ineptitude.

The reaction of depression is not confined to young freshmen, however, nor is it necessarily related to difficulties associated with study. The student may be in the graduate school, already past the first flush of youth, and perhaps a little triste or weary from the steady grind and worried by constant competition with a most gifted, accomplished, and brilliant galaxy of colleagues. At such times there may be a kind of tacit rebellion, an intellectual sitdown strike, so to speak, when the mind seems to refuse to do more work. Any one of many circumstances can bring this about impending orals, a thesis due or overdue, an unhappy love relationship, or disquieting news from home. Even conspicuous success can bring on this reaction in some individuals.

Of course, the commonsense attitude would be to quit for a while, to do something else, to have some fun and then come back with renewed vigor. But this seldom occurs to them, partly because they have already lost some resilience and resourcefulness. The thought of absenting themselves from work is far too perilous. Instead, these students prefer to whip the tired horse. They stay up later and get up earlier, and they worry about all the ground they still have to cover.

Sometimes fate takes over. They come down with the flu or "a virus," or they develop infectious mononucleosis. This seems a welcome and respectable respite, but it usually leaves them more exhausted than the illness itself could account for, and still unable to work.

Many other devices are automatically resorted to as defensive maneuvers against the underlying depression. Instead of doing extra work, the student may stay in bed in the mornings and sleep until noon, thereby missing her lectures or even hour exams. Her academic plight goes from bad to worse, her depression and feelings of guilt increase, and her selfesteem continues to plummet. She may adopt a kind of cynical, supersophisticated, and supercilious attitude toward the whole academic community and cease to be a functioning part of it.

These, together with the other defenses I shall mention, are maladaptive, in the sense that they are unrealistic and make matters worse rather than better.

Another common defense among young girls has to do with their eating habits. They try to allay their uneasiness and anxiety by eating too much. Some of them will stuff themselves with bread and butter at mealtime; others will fill up on ice cream and candy between meals; still others become night feeders and ransack the kitchen when they should be asleep. This extra feeding, which has little to do with hunger, may be episodic around examination time; it may be a reaction to having been jilted; or, again, it may have become a kind of chronic addiction. Of course, it feeds as well the lowered selfesteem, puts an end to dating, and becomes a new source of discouragement. This phenomenon is seen almost exclusively in girls, seldom in boys.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In